[Nightboat (originally published by Timeless Infinite Light); 2018]
Lauren Levin’s first collection, 2016’s The Braid, remains one of the richest, strongest poetry collections of the decade. Levin’s voice in The Braid’s poems was alternately daybooky, scholarly, oracular, and associative; the poems’ loose structure — they ran from six to thirty pages, broken sometimes by stanza, sometimes by page-unit — let a big, curious variety of material in. Reaganomics; the tiny rebellions and outrageous dramas of the art world; TV; internal battles between tenderness, worry, ambivalence, and rage; the cultural and familial pressures on new parents; racial hatred and institutional racism; diapers and drool-strings and breastfeeding: The Braid contained it all, its capaciousness given direction and life by Levin’s vigilance and their restless, uneasy poetic sensibility:
There’s a kind of fluid, limpid prose that’s like a drug
bringing heart’s ease in, I use it to sleep, the even washing tones of it
That we look at Sappho, poems expand, so everything is ok
But the ripple or flutter that was in works of art (endless ripples moving out)
is now in everything
with added overlays of information —
it — this branch, box, whatever — goes through an interface and moves and spreads
I think I’m dying of anxiety but that doesn’t ever happen
Levin’s sensitivity shone in each detail of The Braid, but it was the disjunctions — the leap the reader’s mind made between arresting details — that gave the book its energy. Justice Piece // Transmission, their second book, leaps farther, but it reaches less. Its two long texts — the first collage-like, the second essayistic — integrate quick cuts, quotations (dropped in without context or, often, subsequent meditation), and dashes of daily detail into a whole that, somehow, says less about Levin’s sensibility and more about our current moment in lyric-prose/poetic-essay fashion.
“Justice Piece,” the first half of the book, is sixty pages of intercut quotations, broken-off thoughts, numbingly awful statistics, e-mail thread subjects, and biographical details. It was instigated, its first page tells us, by a friend who asks Levin what it means to be white, how whiteness is present in their work, and what justice means to them. Levin’s response to this prompt takes them everywhere. “Justice Piece” engages racialized and gendered violence, the dependency of the body (in fetal development and infancy, in sickness, in sexual desire), performance art, America’s masculine coding of intellectual freedom, the communities within which we raise children, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and more.
The text’s overflow of detail is carried over and expanded from The Braid. Levin’s idea of beauty is a tangible one, instantiated not in abstractions but in particulars, a “mortal flesh” unconcealed by language. In the poem’s sensual plainness (tears, placentas, scabbing moles), “Justice Piece” imagines a contact — a healing intimacy with others — that permits not violence but instead interpenetration and interdependence. Levin writes about ceaselessly touching their child, called A in the book; about the feeling, after A’s birth, that they could no longer see their own body in parts (“it was all equally a thing and equally there”). They write, too, about their heart leaping toward their child precisely for her manyness: “Her soft blurry face is visible or hidden I feel my love / for her butt, her back, her face, her belly, her hidden and visible faces.” Elsewhere, Levin writes: “If I touched someone what else could I do / if I combined with someone / and then separated from them / what else could I do.”
These images of contact — consensual and mutable — are as close as Levin comes to articulating a positive image of justice. Elsewhere in the poem, the justice they describe is always “justice served,” a placeholder for revenge and ruthless power-over. In the brutalization of Texas teenager Dajerria Becton by Officer Eric Casebolt at a pool party, for example, Levin makes visible the invisible propositions governing the act —
A male was shoving someone’s face into the ground
A cop was shoving a girl’s face into the ground
A cop was shoving a black person’s face into the ground
A white cop was shoving a young black girl’s face into the ground
— while suggesting how little the police officer sees around him:
Officer Eric Casebolt scans the crowd of kids
doesn’t see the white kids
his gaze flickers or blanks out at opportune times
the force he is authorized to provide
The white subjects are not “innocent” in the officer’s subjectivity, just invisible, inert. Meanwhile, “black bodies are tortured by justice,” Levin writes. The police are a force of violence, “an authoritarian parenting fantasy,” under whose power mutuality is impossible. They are “that which is permitted to coerce a solution / to any problem anytime,” Levin quotes Egon Bittner as saying, “with the understanding / that it will allow no opposition whatsoever.” This kind of dehumanizing power is implicitly contrasted a few pages later with the negotiated and dependent relationship between parent and child. “Is it justice that A owns my body but I don’t own hers / Or not that she owns my body but that she used it when she couldn’t do otherwise / is justice and one of the tangles of justice.” Our full recognition of our dependence, the poem suggests, may have radical and transformative potential.
So, a reader wonders, is power an unavoidable aspect of our relationships? If so, is justice between people possible? Could this power be made visible — in critique, in negotiation — and perhaps transformed by care? Or does power always turn into brutality and objectification? The poem doesn’t answer these questions, because it keeps stretching beyond them. In its leaps, “Justice Piece” absorbs more than it can make tangible. Whole pages of the poem read like this one:
Linda Nochlin says, “One studies what prevents representation”
or there’s TJ Clark on Courbet: “some kind of action against the place of art itself”
If justice could become possible at the points where it ends
before it appears
“A key objective of schooling, according to reformer Horace Mann,
should be to implant a certain kind of conscience in students, so
that they discipline their own behavior and begin to police themselves”
Jurors tend to believe witnesses who are good looking,
don’t fidget, and are not black
“Justice Piece” is incredibly various. But without the formal structure and vividness of The Braid, the lines and stanzas (almost always in simple present) succumb to an implicit sameness, like mixed beads clicked into place along the same string. This means that lyric disjunctions that would be striking or energizing in a shorter work feel, as “Justice Piece” progresses, like a tic, an avoidance of — rather than a challenge to — conclusion or certainty. Meanwhile, because of the poem’s deliberate flatness of tone, the stretches between these disjunctions (the fifteen-plus pages on Rocky Horror, for example) start to feel drab. The intellectual ambitions of The Braid are still there. Levin suggests — in images of placental development, in the seductive “male availability and yieldingness” of Tim Curry’s Frank in Rocky Horror — that a kind of alert and shaping readiness, receptive but not passive, may be the right way to make space for a new justice. But, unlike The Braid, “Justice Piece” never floats aloft to become more than its parts.
“Transmission,” the second half of the book, is less capacious than “Justice Piece”; though it repeats some of the same formal tics, the text succeeds in exploring bigger questions. The text, written in paragraphs that read like verse stanzas, is about Levin’s struggle to transform their relationship to care. “Transmission” narrates Levin’s family legacies of anxiety, caregiving, guilt, sickness, hypochondria, misogyny, tenderness, and racial bigotry; Levin’s own recognition of, and attempt to integrate, these legacies is the text’s central drama. Like sicknesses in the blood the body struggles to expel, family “more than anything is a pattern and a compulsion, a stickiness to absorb to and reject from. A quasi living thing that hijacks other cells to make its products.” Family, in “Transmission,” is also a microcosm for the conflict (always gendered) between trustworthy versus untrustworthy knowledge, suppressed secrets and creeping dread.
In Levin’s family, they find authoritarian or needy men, dutiful or cracked-open and anxious women. These figures come to life more vividly than any of the acquaintances or subjects in “Justice Piece.” Levin’s father, a surgeon, receives and answers their am-I-going-to-die phone calls during their pregnancy; he’s risk-averse but takes patients’ lives into his hands; he frets constantly about things like parking but presumes, in a male way, control over his environment. Levin’s paternal grandmother, Ganee (Levin’s toddlerhood mispronunciation stuck), is the wife and mother of surgeons, “[s]o wedded to duty, it was as if she had never known shame.” She is supported by, and cares for, her son, Levin’s Uncle S, himself bipolar and intellectually disabled. But her own non-negotiable need for care forces itself into view only as she’s dying.
I was talking to my brother on the phone. He was in her apartment. Behind his voice I heard her crying out, or screaming, inarticulate cries. There was a scramble and I felt all the atoms rearranging, the air dropping out; Josh said ‘I have to go’ and I was back holding the quiet frightening phone. The cries of her pain and need that I heard like a rumor.
In addition to its family materials, “Transmission” reflects on the suffocating anxieties of Levin’s pregnancy (“during my third trimester I felt happiest at the hospital. Surely they wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me.”); the shame and charge beneath masturbation’s “trembling self-regard”; and their connection with their mother’s own hypochondria and anxiety. The text’s historical materials work in accounts of European witch hunts, clitoridectomy, and of the diagnosis of “hysteria,” all brutal male suppressions of supposedly sick or excessive female knowledge.
Aside from the odd dropped-in quote, this historical material is better integrated than the cut-and-paste quotations and associations of “Justice Piece.” This could be because “Transmission” has a more expository structure; it could also be that Levin is more deeply and uncomfortably immersed in “Transmission”’s material. There’s a frank curiosity about their relatives that breaks through the low-temperature, removed tone of this book’s voice.
In my dad’s case, my guess is that he spends his work life worrying about patients and operations and whether something went wrong. He doesn’t do caregiving in the off-hours. That’s the male privilege I’ve coveted my whole life: the deliciousness of idling, shirking.
And they write about their own anxiety — whether somatized as hypochondria or felt as dread — with a sharp insight: “Being anxious means that you think your intuition is more acute than life itself… You can’t ever know and no doctor can ever prove that something isn’t about to happen.” This teeming worry and its “painful investment” are transferred onto the body of their child: “Another body for my worry to embrace, to try to x-ray. My dad sees me scanning her legs for bruises — it’s like a quality in my attention changes. ‘What are you looking at?’ he says.”
Levin doesn’t record their answer, but they don’t have to: in “Transmission,” body, mind, and nature share a potential instability and danger. Just as a mind can always multiply its fears and preoccupations, so the body’s cells could always turn cancerous, the environment itself overproduce and break down: “I felt as though someone had wrenched the dial, the homeostasis dial, and it had broken off in their hand. All nature pulsates and vibrates with life. T comes home saying, ‘My teeth are worse. They’re crowding and bleeding.’”
“Transmission” begins and ends in physical contact — A, feverish, leaning against Levin’s cool hands — which adds a tender felt balance to the whole work. But the text’s last pages are a discouraging fizzle, and I ended “Transmission” as I did “Justice Piece,” wishing it had pulled its materials together more tightly, and made explicit some of the interrelationships merely suggested by the dynamic consciousness of the text.
We’re in a literary moment dominated by the long-form lyric essay, a form given to quick cuts, to stitched-in quotes, and to little dashes of daily detail: ingredients tossed together in the hopes that something will rise. In American poetry, this aesthetic first distinguished itself from late-Modernist disjunction and collage (Paterson, Montage of a Dream Deferred) in 60s Bay Area experimentalism — the “voice-glyph” poetry of Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure and others. In these poets’ work, readers were expected to sense a unifying, spiritually transcendent force amid fragments of deliberately mundane daily stuff: song lyrics, bird paths, weather forecasts, and bits of conversation. “This poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving,” as Whalen put it, “which is a world body being here and now which is history . . . and you.”
But in subsequent lyric prose and long-form hybrid poetry, the transcendent force at the heart of the work has rarely been a sacred presence. More often, it’s a structural political reality — the colonialist legacies of occupation and cultural suppression; institutional sexism; systems of racism and imperialist violence; the pervasive dehumanization and brutality of transphobia — which the charged fragments, anecdotes, found text, scholarly quotes, etc. are supposed to indirectly illuminate. Such texts rarely employ the connective tissue of argument or build from the specificity of a stated thesis. Political and cultural experience, they suggest, is too manifold to be contained the traditional lyric or expository prose; legacies of displacement and erasure can’t be instantiated in received forms that are merely analytical or goal-oriented. Sometimes these texts succeed wildly in their formal means (The Arrivants, Bright Felon, S*PeRM**K*T, Nature Poem, The Argonauts, Commons, Whereas). The felt political reality flickers into visibility: readers experience themselves caught in the weft, in contact with and transformed by a perspective that couldn’t have been otherwise articulated. But in contemporary “experimental” writing, these formal means are more often just a convention, as restricting and modish in its own way as James Tate-derived surrealism or cutesy sub-Believer lifestyle essays were for writers of the aughts.
Levin is an alert and generative writer, capable of completely engrossing themself in their material. The more synthetic focus and probing insight their next work summons, the deeper it will take us; I look forward to the next chance to be absorbed.
Jay Aquinas Thompson is a poet and essayist with recent or forthcoming work in Jubilat, Tammy, COAST | NoCOAST, Big Big Wednesday, The Spectacle, and Poetry Northwest, where he’s a contributing editor. He lives with his family in rural Washington state, where he teaches creative writing to incarcerated women.